Foreign involvement in the 2016 U.S. presidential election has been the source of great debate since the Central Intelligence Agency’s release of a declassified document tying the Trump campaign to Russia in January. Four UW-Madison faculty members met to discuss this controversial topic in a panel on campus Wednesday.
The panel, speaking on the topic “Russia and the 2016 U.S. Election: Cyberwar and the Prospects for Future Conflict,” consisted of political science professors Scott Gehlbach and Yoshiko Herrera, geography professor Robert Kaiser and international studies lecturer Ron Machoian.
Ted Gerber, the director of UW-Madison’s Center for Russia, East Europe and Central Asia and the moderator of the event, opened the panel by addressing the context of the discussion, stating that Russia “was set to delegitimize the election” and “deliberately sway the election in favor of Donald Trump.”
Kaiser, who has conducted research on the geopolitical nature of the conflict over the 2016 election, discussed the historical background of today’s cybersecurity threats. He said the U.S. missed its chance to address issues of cybersecurity in the 1990s and early 2000s, choosing to avoid conversations about international cyber laws with Russia, India and China.
“Mainly this failure is due to the U.S. and Russia from the Cold War era [and] a side track due to 9/11,” Kaiser said. “There is a tendency to not disclose these cyber attacks, particularly in the U.S., because they didn’t want to admit vulnerabilities.”
Machoian took a broader approach to the topic, stressing the fact that cybersecurity issues are changing world powers’ relations with each other.
“Cyber power is already changing the state of conflict, [becoming] a nature of warfare,” Machoian said. “[It is] creating states that will most likely will not be changed by brute force alone.”
Gehlbach directly addressed Russia’s potential motives for tampering with the election. He explained one rationale, that Russia may have been retaliating for Western meddling in its politics, but also stressed that Russia’s involvement was likely a way of electing a U.S. president more sympathetic to Russian appeals.
As the panel concluded, Herrera warned that Russia’s influence on the election could threaten U.S. institutions in the future, and said it may also have an effect on the international conflict over Russia’s interest in Ukraine.
She also emphasized that the desire to tamper with enemies’ institutions affects is widespread in international relations.
“Hacking is multifaceted and across country borders,” she said. “[There will] always be these kinds of goals [in the international community.]”